Friday, February 1, 2008

The White House email controversy: hearings spotlight disturbing IT practices


By David Gewirtz

On Tuesday, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held hearings into the missing White House email messages. After watching the three hours of hearings and reviewing the various supporting transcripts, my first impression can be summarized in three words: what a mess!

Some good did come out of the hearings. There is a lot more technical information now available on what's going on, at least on the White House side of the missing email question. I'll be reviewing that information in-depth over the next week and reporting on it in detail.

"If, in fact, the bulk of the White House email records are now stored in bundles of rotting PST files, all at or above their maximum safe load-level, that ain't good in a very big way."

Some of that technical detail, though, confirmed my worst fears: IT operations at the White House are terrible. The archiving system currently in use is a bad joke. In a big PR problem for IBM Lotus, Congress is also badly miscategorizing Lotus Notes as an obsolete technology, providing a misleading justification for an unfounded migration during a time of war. The cost to manage data recovery is being misrepresented by at least an order of magnitude. And Congress behaves like an old married couple, constantly bickering. That last, at least, is no surprise to anyone.

Like Gilligan's ill-fated three hour tour, this three hour hearing ended badly, with no real resolution. A good hour of the hearing was wasted on a debate between the members about whether an "Interrogatory" of one Steven McDevitt was acceptable to the members.

McDevitt, it turns out, is one of us. He was the IT guy in the White House Office of the Chief Information Officer who was responsible for setting up the new archiving system -- and he was pissed. Apparently, all of his best practices recommendations were ignored.

And this is what led to a complete waste of time, killing a full third of the hearing's allotted time for real work. The Democrats claimed that because his statements are highly critical of White House operations, the Republicans didn't want his report admitted.

The Republicans claimed the Dems gave his report special treatment because it was critical of White House operations. Interestingly, the Democrats claimed that McDevitt refused to testify before the committee because he was told by the White House that he wasn't permitted to.

We'll come back to McDevitt's report in a later article. His "interrogatory" is a mother lode of technical details about what went on at the White House.